What happened to the art of civil discourse?

  • April 17, 2012

No doubt, some people will be offended by this column. Seems whatever is said about Catholicism offends someone these days. Even the most benign comment is challenged. Instead of listening to and discussing other points of view, there is a tendency to shout at those who see things differently.

Think I am exaggerating? Take a quick spin on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere and you’ll easily find the shouting, name-calling and misunderstandings. (Just Google “Catholic faith arguments” or “contraception” or “women priests” as starting points and then simply click away.)

To be fair, anger is not restricted to Catholics. It happens across all of society. Just look at the shenanigans in Question Period on Parliament Hill or the polarized politics in the United States, or the loud-mouth talking heads on television. It seems whoever yells the loudest thinks he or she has won the debate.

Makes one wonder what we’re teaching the young.

But since this is The Catholic Register, after all, let’s talk about Catholics specifically and how, to a large degree, when opinions differ Catholics have stopped speaking and listening respectfully to each other.

It’s as if camps have been set up and lines drawn. To describe these different Catholic camps, labels are thrown around like liberal, conservative, modernist, traditionalist. There are even liberal-conservatives and conservative-liberals. And each camp seems hell-bent to attack the other.

Here is an example from an American Jesuit priest named James Martin. After Easter, he blogged about this fomenting anger and mentioned what happened when he simply wrote: “I love Jesus.”

For that, he was accused by a reader of heresy because he wrote Jesus, and not Jesus Christ. “As you know, Christ, from the Greek word Christos, meaning the Anointed One (years ago, all Jesuits understood Greek, but perhaps no longer), is the nomenclature that Holy Mother Church uses to signify Our Lord’s divinity,” retorted the reader. “Father, do you somehow not believe in the divinity of Our Blessed Lord? I am terrified to conclude that you are also denying the Resurrection here. Father, I will fervently pray that you are not dwelling in error, as I have feared for you since I read this post and reread the definition of ‘heresy’ in a theology reference book that I always keep handy. I pray every evening for gravely misled people like you, Father, and I must say this: my conscience obliges me to correct your errors. Do you fear for your soul?”

The exchange in America, the National Catholic Weekly goes on with many more preposterous accusations against the priest, each filled with more venom, but you get the point.

It just feels like there is so much less respect in the way we argue these days. Just try talking, either in person or online, about issues such as celibacy, contraception, homosexuality, the role of women in the Church or why the pews are emptying in Western countries. The list goes on and on.

So often the discussion heats up beyond debate into name-calling. All across the online world you’ll find screams accusing others of ignorance, or having their souls in mortal danger, or being a tool of the Vatican, or worse.

This intolerance is not limited to the right or the left or the centre (if such a thing exists); it is prevalent everywhere.

Why? Is it because technology gives us the ability to immediately react and fire off nasty missives, often behind the veil of anonymity, without really thinking? Is it because morals in society are crumbling around us? Are we simply becoming meaner people?

I certainly don’t have the answer, but such mean-spirited behaviour makes me think of something Paul wrote (Ephesians 4:1-3): “I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you therefore to lead a life worthy of the vocation to which you were called. With all humility and gentleness, and with patience, support each other in love. Take every care to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.”

Catholics have been disagreeing since the beginning, all the way back to when Paul said it was okay to eat pork and Peter said it wasn’t. Let’s continue to debate and question each other. It stirs thought and strengthens the Church and our faith. But let’s do it with humility and gentleness and without the name-calling.

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